Thursday, June 30, 2011

Union Strikes: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Good to be home at last, and to enjoy the comforts of the Manor, not the least of which is the outdoor swimming pool. Irving had kindly brought me a serious Grey Goose martini, and all was well. The day was improved with the arrival of my youngest daughter, Victoria, who, incredibly, wanted my advice upon something. (This hadn't occurred since she was ten). Wonders never cease.

She had arrived in style, in a red Ferrari 599 GTB Fioreno.

Irving, in bringing her around to the pool, asked, "How the hell can she afford that?"

"You forget her little sideline," I replied.

As readers will remember, even if Irving didn't, Victoria supplements her income as a brilliant historian by appearing in ghastly Grade B horror films as a victim sine qua none. The rewards are significant, and I have wondered from time to time that it's probably the history income that is the minor player here. Not many historians tool around in Ferraris.

But I digress.

Apparently Victoria had been commissioned by the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) to write a brief but accurate history of unions. This she had done, but had included a component that she was uneasy about. Hence the request for advice.

The day being sunny and hot, Victoria stripped and soon was splashing about in the pool while I gave her paper a read-through. As I drew to the end, I saw what the problem was.

First, The Good

Victoria had traced the first recorded instance of union activity to 1245, when a strike was organised by the weavers of Douai. (Wonder if they got dental?) From there she cited activities on the part of the medieval guilds right to modern times, with appropriate references to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and George Orwell's Down The Mine. All good stuff, and of particular interest was Victoria's insight that the achievement of better wages, workplace safety and health benefits all contributed to the growth of a contented middle class, a true bulwark against revolution. It is no accident that Lenin wanted the Middle Class to disappear (and Stalin made sure that it did).

Then The Bad

Victoria then launched into an area that really had no business being in such an historical accounting. In short, and in terms of strikes, she makes the point that strikes are fine in the private sector, but should be banned for the public sector.

In the private sector, the firm is the target. In the public sector, it is the public that is the target. Her argument here was that the firm was at risk, and the firm's management could either negotiate or not. The striking union had to be aware as well that if the firm lacked the resources to meet the union's demands, the firm could fail, and the union's members would be out of a job entirely. This is mano e mano stuff, with only two parties involved.

In the case of the public sector, THREE parties are involved -- the union, the government, and the public at large. Victoria's point here is that the public is innocent and really not responsible for the situation that has led to the strike. Yet it is the public that bears the brunt of the strike, whether in terms of teachers unavailable to students, no mail delivery or garbage collection that suddenly isn't. She indicates that certain services deemed essential to the public welfare are not permitted a strike option -- police and firefighters fall into this category. They can Work To Rule, but the issue can only be resolved through binding arbitration. It is this policy that Victoria wanted adopted for all public and civil service unions.

And she is absolutely right.

But that is not what the NLRB asked her to write about, and I reluctantly advised her to drop the section, suggesting at the same time that the thesis be saved for a future paper. Victoria heaved a sigh, and agreed.

Now The Ugly

This next bit has nothing whatsoever to do with strikes or unions, but I include it because shortly after Victoria left, I came across a newspaper item that indicated that the next chair of the UN Human Rights Commission will be North Korea. Unbelievable, and I close with these words from Cervantes Don Quixote: "Too much sanity may be madness, and the maddest of all to see life as it is and not as it should be."

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Better World

So there I was, enjoying a breakfast of coffee and croissants with the Compte de Rienville on the balcony of his chateau. The enjoyment came to a sudden halt, however, when I came upon an item in Le Monde. Furious, I slapped the paper down, hitting a croissant at a certain angle, and sent it spinning in the air. The croissant was snapped up on the fly by the Compte's Irish setter Cardinal Richelieu, indicating that the dog was aptly named: that is, one who would take advantage of opportunities when they presented themselves.

The Compte looked up, breaking away from some arcane treatise he was reading on the Bayeux Tapestry. "What on earth was that all about?" he asked.

I retrieved the newspaper, and said, "Just listen." I then began to read the article, the gist of which follows.

According to the article, an eight-year-old girl was recently kidnapped in Islamabad by some crazed followers of Allah The Merciful, who then forced a suicide vest upon her, and sent her off to attack security forces.The girl, one Sohana Javaid, then proceeded to act in a far more sane manner than her Islamist captors.

"They put a suicide vest on me," she said, "but it did not fit. Then they put on a second one. I threw away the vest and started shouting for help as I came close to the checkpost and the security forces rescued me."

"Now I ask you," I said heatedly, "what sort of religion seeks to blow up young girls? It is disgusting, appalling, not to be borne. I just wish I had the power to round them all up and distribute them to the world's zoos as examples of evolution gone amok. They could be called, oh I don't know...."

"Homo idioticus," suggested the Compte.


"But, mon petit chou, what sort of world would we then have?"

"One a damn sight better than it is now. And I am not a cabbage."

"A term of endearment, ma cherie." He put down his article. "So. The world would be a better place when...when what?"

"The world would be a better place when...." And I proceeded to tell him.

1) When religion and civic governance are well and truly separated;

2) When, in the United States, elected officials realize that regard for country supersedes regard for party;

3) When Canada abolishes the Senate (that's a no brainer) but also abolishes The Indian Act, thereby allowing First Nation Peoples to assume their own destiny as property owners and Canadian citizens without being under the thumb of Band Chiefs;

4) When Russia and China approach Canada and Australia with a view to adopting a similar Federal approach in their own countries;

5) When a Saudi woman, resplendent in a short, sequin-covered skating dress, wins the Ladies Competition at the Olympics, with a similarly-dressed win in Dance by an Iranian dance team who are not married nor brother and sister;

6)And finally, when an Afghan woman is elected President of Afghanistan, and immediately calls for a National Holiday in which the burning of all burkas will be mandatory."

"I have more," I said, "but that will do for now."

The Compte looked at me with those penetrating grey eyes of his. "I am impressed, cherie. Impressed. There is, however, a small problem."

"No doubt."

"As Margaret Thatcher once said --"

"You couldn't stand the woman."

"Not her per se. That infernal handbag. But she did make an excellent point when addressing her Cabinet when dealing with a particularly difficult situation. If I remember correctly, she stated,' Don't tell me what. I know what. Tell me HOW!'"


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Culinary and Historical Repartee

It had been too long since I had seen the Compte de Rienville, and when he requested my presence at a dinner party at Versailles, well, I just had to accept, and was soon aboard his private jet. Now while I usually avoid dinner parties like the plague (unless I threw them, and knew who precisely was coming) where the Compte was concerned -- well, the exception that proves the rule.

I must add that the Compte, aware of my propensity to not suffer fools gladly, did urge me to cut a more demure figure than was my wont. "These are," he said, "important people, and the request to host the dinner has come from Sarkozy himself."

"Oh, well then," I sniffed.

"Now Simone, it's not often that I ask you --"

"Relax, mon cher. I will be on my best behaviour. This time, anyway."

For the occasion I wore an Alexander McQueen strapless sheath that from the looks I got from the assemblage, was well appreciated. I mean, if McQueen is good enough for Kate Middeleton, it's good enough for me. And another plus: not present was Dominique Strauss-Kahn. I had had a rather nasty run-in with the man about a year ago in Vienna, but I gather that Dominique has other things on his mind just now, not the least of which is staying out of a New York prison. Sic transit gloriam munde.

The evening began with champagne (Veuve Clicquot biensur) and then on to dinner. This was magnificent, and all washed down with an incredible series of wines from the Compte's own cellar. And I was on my best behaviour, agreeing with whatever point of view was put forward, although an inner part of me was rebelling at my reluctance to correct what were some obvious falsehoods put forward by the 'important' guests.

Just after dessert (an excellent creme brulee drizzled in Remy Martin) I unfortunately lost it.

A noted French historian was expounding on his belief that historical research was now so advanced that accuracy was now a given. This was such a nonsense that I simply had to challenge him on the point.

"Monsieur," I began, "what of Louis XV?"

"Ah," he intoned, "an era that we know well. "Apres moi le deluge" as Louis put it."

"But that's not correct," I said, rather bluntly I must admit.

"Of course it's correct."

"In fact, my dear Professor, the actual statement is "Apres NOUS le deluge," and it was uttered by Jeanne de Poisson, better known as Madame de Pompadour. Male historians --"

"Utter claptrap," he interrupted. "You English have never really recovered from the French invasion of 1066. And just where did you evolve this Pompadour theory?"

"The English historian Norman Davies. You could profit from a read-through of his book Europe. Secondly, I am not English but Italian. And finally, the French never invaded England in 1066."

This brought all conversation to a halt, including a frantic glance from the Compte.

I carried on. "You see, when Alfred the Great kicked all the Norsemen out of a goodly part of England, they then all went to a certain area of France and took it over. That part is now known as Normandy: that is, the land of the Norsemen. It was they, under William, who returned. Not the French, or Franks as they were then called. You dispute this?"

There was silence, and I could feel the Compte's disapproving look piercing right through my shoulders. Better make things right, I thought.

"Although I must say, Professor, that my daughter Victoria is also an historian, and she admires you greatly."

The Professor relaxed a wee bit.

"Victoria particularly was intrigued by your work on the Thirty Years War, and your treatment of the campaigns of General Tilly."

The Professor actually allowed a small smile to appear.

"And yet..." I paused.

The Professor stiffened again.

"She has trouble getting her students to appreciate historical accuracy. Three of them thought General Tilly, upon retirement, went into the hat business."

Silence, then laughter, and all was well again.

The Compte approached. "Close one, that."

"Not really," I said. "And the good Professor may actually do some reading on the issues discussed. Or not. Still, a ray of hope. So Blake: "If the fool persists in his folly, he will become wise."

"Touche," said the Compte.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Getting And Receiving

I had been planning a dinner party for the new Mayor (one who believes in reason and accountability) and to this end spent the morning with Henri, my cook, reviewing menu options. Upon leaving the kitchen, I encountered my IT specialist, Rachel. She had obviously been waiting for me to emerge.

This was odd. Rachel never surfaces much before 1:00 AM, in that she was usually up to all hours with her computers. As she had explained once, Europe and Asia were easier to access during the middle of the night. I couldn't dispute her reasoning, especially when the stuff she gave me access to was often priceless. There is, for instance, information on those paragons of leadership, the Kims of North Korea, that has astounded both the U.S. and the U.K. Sir Harry was delighted, and Hillary even sent me a gracious thank you note. As to the nature of the information, well, perhaps on another day. Although the stuff about the Barbie dolls...but enough said.

In any event, I was curious to find out what had got Rachel out and about at what would have been to her an unearthly hour.

"I need a favour," she said. Rachel was not one for social niceties.

"And what would that be?" I asked.

"I want you to give a person this memory stick. You will receive a similar one in return."

"And just why, Rachel, wouldn't you --"

"Because it's still too dangerous. I know that I have been traced to Toronto, and certain feelers have been put out. The opposition after all is not stupid, just bureaucratic."

Readers of past entries will know that Rachel committed an act very close to treason in Israel, by fleeing with the WRAITH software. And while she had her supporters there, she also had her enemies.

"Well, Rachel, I will have to know a little bit about what this is all about. If for nothing else, my own safety."

"Your minder, Irving, can go with you."

"You haven't answered my question."

Rachel took her time before responding. Finally she said, "There is a very very secret negotiation going on between certain Israelis and certain Palestinians. If word should leak out...."

"I get the picture. Give me the thing."

"Oh, Rachel added, "You should wear this." she handed me a T-shirt, the front of which stated I REMEMBER THE INK SPOTS.

"But I don't remember the Ink Spots, although I do recall there was a quartet --"

"Doesn't matter. And here are the code words. Now all this is to take place at a musical rehearsal for a charity gala. Here is your observer pass. And Lady Simone, this is important."

"I will do my best."

And so it was that I found myself backstage, amid a slew of electrical wires, amplifiers, microphones, spotlights -- all the paraphernalia of a modern concert. And various singers were there. Avril looking forward to the weekend, Sarah McLachian remembering, Neil Young imagining, well, it went on.

I had been there for about an hour when a hand touched my elbow. I turned, about to launch Swallows In The Sunset (a maiming blow) but stopped when this extremely thin, even gaunt, man, said the right words: "Whispering grass will tell the trees."

I replied, "And the trees will tell the birds and bees."

He gave me a memory stick, I reciprocated, and that was that. Easy peasy.

I stayed for a bit after, much to Irving's chagrin, but was intrigued by one Lady Gaga and her portrayal of a bad romance. Goodness, but the girl did well. Her dancing might not recall Anna Pavlova, and her singing was some distance away from Renee Fleming, but the combination was impressive.

How does Lady Gaga do it? I didn't know. Perhaps she was born that way.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Comments On The Crown

I was at the computer, working out some arbitrage figures vis-a-vis sugar beet futures when Sir Harry called. The two week hiatus in which I had been left alone was apparently over.

"Who is Amir Khadir?" he asked.

"I haven't a clue," I replied. "Is he offering time-shares in Kabul? Running guns in Pakistan? Growing asparagus in Chechnya? How the hell --"

"He's from Canada," said Sir Harry tersely. "From Quebec. Going after the monarchy, he is. A royal visit is pending --"

"Hold on, hold on," I said. "It's coming back now. Khadir is a member of the Quebec National Assembly, in the Quebec Solidaire party. Fringe group. Only speaks for a minority."

"Nevertheless," said Sir Harry. The Prince and the Duchess of Cambridge could be at risk, and perhaps ...." His voice trailed off.Then a short silence.

"Perhaps what?" Then came the dawn. "No. Not on. An executive sanction would in this case be madness. I will research this a bit more, but I am certain there's no threat here. I doubt that the kid even owns a gun, let alone knows how to use one. The only Bad Thing here is M. Khadir's total misunderstanding of the beneficial role a constitutional monarchy can play, both in the UK and here."


"I'll send you a report," I replied. "But aside from the usual precautions, going after Khadir would be a total waste of time. And money, Sir Harry. And money." I threw the latter point in because all government budgets are tight now, including Sir Harry's.

After agreeing begrudgingly to drop the matter, Sir Harry rang off.

As to my report, I restricted myself to two points -- money and stability.

To my mind, it is inarguable that the English monarchy is a wealth creator. Yes, it draws extensively from the public purse, but these expenses pale in comparison to the money the monarchy draws in through tourism, memento sales, hotel bookings, and the like. Even in Quebec, I would venture that there are any number of hoteliers and merchants who are salivating at the fiscal rewards coming.

More importantly, however, is the stability the monarchy provides in terms of giving the Commonwealth a head of state that is above the sleaze and partisanship that are the bane of politics today. Yes, there is a risk that an absolute idiot could inherit the throne, but we are a long way from the era of the Divine Right Of Kings, in spite of the efforts made by the likes of Robert Mugabe or Hugo Chavez. Put against this lot, the House of Windsor doesn't do that badly. Not badly at all.

As for M. Amir Khadir, my advice would be to read some history.

We won.

You lost.

Then we gave it back, and Quebec has all the rights that other Canadian provinces have. Even more, given the language issue. Levesque and Bouchard (even old DeGaulle) couldn't bring independence about, and it has now become what those versed in politics call a "Dead Issue". Time to move on, Amir.

Je me souviens.